Tom Sorensen

Tom Talks: Charlotte Hornets fans deserve hope and honesty. They’re not getting it.

New Charlotte Hornets point guard Terry Rozier started only 30 games in four prior NBA seasons with the Boston Celtics.
New Charlotte Hornets point guard Terry Rozier started only 30 games in four prior NBA seasons with the Boston Celtics. AP

Two Charlotte Hornets season-ticket holders told me last week that they will not renew their ticket orders. They’ve already renewed for the 2019-20 season. But this, they say, will be their final season.

Both love basketball and the NBA, and would like to love the team in the city to which they years ago, decades ago in one case, moved. Both are doctors and presumably can afford tickets. But they’re frustrated and fed up and you pick the term.

Here’s what the Hornets fail to understand.

The team belongs to Michael Jordan. Although fans lack a deed, the team also is theirs. Many invest in seats and merchandise. But even those fans who do not go to Spectrum Center invest emotion. They care. They want to care.

General manager Mitch Kupchak’s conference-call interview with the media Saturday night was a disaster. Maybe hold the next one at noon on a Tuesday. I’ve been in a group interview with Kupchak, but I don’t know him. So, I’m guessing on this.

His answers struck me as condescending. Asked why Charlotte didn’t trade Kemba Walker last season or before last season, Kupchak talked glowingly about Terry Rozier, the point guard they acquired from the Boston Celtics in a sign-and-trade for Walker.

Worse, when he was asked if the Hornets were going to rebuild, he wouldn’t commit to that term. So, if you’re not rebuilding, what are you doing?

You have to have a plan. The last time the Hornets rebuilt, they had a plan, and they admitted it.

This fan base is not the fan base it was in 1988 when the Hornets came to town. In those days, we were hopelessly naïve. Whether the Hornets won or lost, we loved to have genuine basketball players on the court and in our grocery stores and on our streets.

Maybe Rozier will become a player whose shots go in more than 40% of the time. Given a starter’s minutes, maybe he’ll perform like a starter, as he did in a cameo playoff role. He works and he plays defense. Entrusting the offense to Rozier, however, is a gamble. Acknowledge it.

And please acknowledge that the Hornets are rebuilding. You lose your two most effective players from last season, Walker and Jeremy Lamb, something has to be going on.

If the relationship between a team and a town is going to work, honesty is required. The Hornets will not compete for the playoffs this season. They will compete for a shiny lottery pick in the 2020 draft. We can see it, so why can’t the Hornets say it?

I promise one thing. I promise fans care. I promise fans want to support the Hornets. But they’re not naïve.

Most can probably cite Rozier’s career field goal percentage in Boston, and some can cite his field goal percentage at Louisville (40.1% as a freshman and 41.1% as a sophomore).

Maybe he’ll grow and blossom and win fans and perhaps games.

But this is a season of starting over, rebuilding and bottoming out.

To be candid, the Hornets have been rebuilding since the Bobcats came to Charlotte. As far as fans go, 2019-20 is the nadir. How low can you go? We’re about to find out.

Fans are entitled to two qualities. They are entitled to honesty, and they are entitled to hope.

If the Hornets don’t give it to them, why should fans give the team their passion and their money?

Nobody over the age of 12 believes that the Hornets will be good next season. That statement probably is unfair to 11-year-olds.

Russell Westbrook: A bad idea

Some of us love famous. We want big names. Every time there’s an opening for a head coach or athlete in our town, we pull out a copy of Who’s Who, which still exists, and run down all the applicable names.

I don’t do this. And I hope that as a city we’ve moved past it.

Yet there’s interest in Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook and his $206 million contract. The Thunder is rebuilding, and unlike the Charlotte Hornets, they don’t care who knows it. Surrounded by role players, Westbrook wants to leave, and might have wanted to leave even before the Thunder traded six-time all-star Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers.

Westbrook plays with great energy, and is a great athlete, among the best athletes in the NBA. But he’s not a great basketball player.

He fills the box score. Last season, he averaged 22.9 points, 11.1 rebounds and 10.7 assists. In the playoffs, he averaged 22.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 10.6 assists.

Because he is so athletic, and because he works so hard, he can always get his shot. This does not always benefit his team. Last season, he shot 42.8% from the field and 29% behind the 3-point line. In the playoffs, he shot 36% from the field and 32.4% behind the 3-point line.

For perspective, Kemba Walker of the Boston Celtics shot 43.4% from the field during the 2018-19 regular season and 35.6% from behind the 3-point line. He has no recent playoff statistics.

Westbrook can’t save a bad team.

The Hornets don’t need a savior. They have committed to a stealth rebuild. They have an almost $20 million a season guard in Terry Rozier, and they don’t need another expensive acquisition.

If the idea is to become very bad, so that the draft pick the Hornets receive in the 2020 lottery will be very good, they must commit to it.

Hornets coach James Borrego has long had a reputation around the NBA for his ability to work with young players. So, don’t blow money on expensive veterans, and let Borrego lead.

Look at the Charlotte roster. Only two players are 30 or older. Marvin Williams is 33, and Nic Batum is 30. Even with Williams and Batum, the average age of Hornets’ players is 24.5.

So, let them be young. Let them make mistakes. Let them play before crowds so small they’ll wonder if the city knows they’re on the court.

By allowing young players to fill most of the rotation, we’ll know what the Hornets have and what they lack and who gets to come along for the ride.

If fans need inspiration to sustain their loyalty, look to the Atlanta Hawks. Last season the Hawks finished 10 games behind the Hornets. The season before, they finished 12 games behind the Hornets. The Hawks were terrible and tough to watch.

The reward is a young nucleus of Trae Young, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, John Collins and Kevin Huerter. That’s a nice good start. They’ve drafted well.

Forget veterans. The Hornets have only one route to respectability. They have to be bad so can get a high pick and begin to become good.

But this time, they need to break with tradition and draft wisely.

MLS would work in Charlotte

David Tepper is so popular that if he drove down Tryon Street on a float fans would fill both sides of the street.

Will Charlotte fill most of the seats at Bank of America Stadium to watch soccer?

They will.

Tepper owns the Carolina Panthers. The five-year deal the Panthers signed with Relevant (love the name) Sports Group has enhanced Tepper’s popularity. Relevant will bring professional international soccer matches to Charlotte.

It also will bring House of Soccer July 19 and 20. House of Soccer is a celebration of the sport. The first one, in Miami in 2017, attracted a crowd of about 40,000. There will be food trucks and beer and a country singer and other acts and options.

Look. I know this city, and I know what we’ll get behind and what we won’t. We’re still not ready for Major League Baseball, and we have such a fine minor league stadium there is no urgency to be. We can wait while baseball figures out its attendance issues.

But soccer is a lock. Every day, people move to Charlotte. As far as I can tell, they all live in giant box-like apartment buildings and drink and eat at local breweries.

They come from the Northeast, Midwest and the Southwest, from adjoining states and far away states, from cities with the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and the NHL.

If they already are aligned with the franchises with which they grew up, the Panthers and Hornets will likely be fallback teams.

But MLS didn’t play its first game until 1996, the same year the Panthers did.

Those of you who lived in Charlotte in 1996 will remember. The Panthers were developing their own style and traditions, and so were fans. There were no footprints to follow. Fans created their own. They can do that in MLS.

The competition for a professional soccer franchise will be intense. Relevant has worked with cities that tried to attain a team. Although such a deal hasn’t been cut with Charlotte, the affiliation will enhance our credibility. Look how much we care.

Thousands of Charlotte residents are looking for a team to make theirs. Why wouldn’t MLS work here? I’m trying to come up with a reason. I’m failing.

Tepper has money and the willingness to open his stadium to events and sports other than football. MLS undoubtedly will want to know if he plans to build a new NFL stadium, and when he plans to build a new NFL stadium, and where he plans to build a new NFL stadium. The rest of us do, too.

House of Soccer will last only two days. But Tepper’s commitment to the sport has no expiration date.

Baseball the winner in MLB All-Star game

Liked the Major League Baseball All-Star game in Cleveland. Grew up in an American League city, so I’ve always pulled for the AL. It won 4-3.

The high point of the all-star festivities was the home run derby. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays hit 91 home runs. His first swing sent the ball 462 feet, which was way over Progressive Field’s left field fence.

He had to go to triple overtime to beat Joc Pederson of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Their duel was thrilling. Guerrero has an impressive swing, and he puts all his weight behind it, dreadlocks flying.

He didn’t win. Pete Alonso of the New York Mets did, winning 23-22.

Alonso is 24, Guerrero only 20.

Baseball won this one. MLB is trying to offset sagging attendance by speeding up games. The days of old people sitting in the bleachers happily making a notation for every at bat has faded. These days hitters go deep or go home.

But it’s still baseball, still the game that many of us, especially the older among us, played and adored as kids. Yet younger fans do want action all the time.

Other sports cater to them. Look at the NFL. While defense is still legal, there are Sundays on which it appears not to be encouraged. Basketball is high flying and high scoring, and hand checking is a foul.

When a sport loses fans, almost every game, or in NASCAR’s case, every race, becomes a referendum. Hey, look, did you see how good that was? How you like us now?

I liked the all-star festivities fine, and have enjoyed watched Guerrero since Toronto called him up this season, despite his initial slump and sustained inconsistency.

One change for which baseball has been criticized is juiced balls, balls that seem to travel like a Stephen Curry jump shot, traveling on and on.

But remember when everybody was hitting home runs and several players were as likely to use steroids as they were chewing gum? Fans felt defrauded, and many fell out of love with the game.

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred told the Baseball Writers Association this week that balls aren’t juiced.

What’s nice is that nobody asked if they players are.

Short takes: Hornets,’ Panthers’ (very long) odds

Watched the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League while I was waiting for takeout. Saw two games, both interesting. The league has never had an offseason such as this one. The balance of power has spread and shifted, and there is no consensus favorite.

According to Bovada.com, the Los Angeles Lakers are the betting favorite to win the NBA championship. The Charlotte Hornets are at the other end of the standings, the longest shot. The Hornets were, however, a 1½ point favorite Wednesday to beat the Chicago Bulls in Las Vegas.

Bovada’s early NFL favorite is the New England Patriots, followed by the Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams. The Carolina Panthers are mired back in the pack, behind the Atlanta Falcons. So…

I never watch the ESPYS. I don’t why. I have nothing philosophically against them. Probably it’s saturation. There are too many awards shows. What do you think is the best of the sports, movies, music, TV and theater awards shows? Be cool to have an award show for the best awards show. I won’t watch…

The Carolina Panthers report for training camp July 24, a mere two weeks, and their kickoff party and first practice are the 25th. This could be the last of the camp in Spartanburg.

If you go, you have great memories. You identified the peripheral player on his way to stardom before anybody else did. You ran into the running back and his family at the hotel. I ran into Bill Polian in a hotel bar, and we started talking about cowboy movies. Polian loves them, as do I. We listed our favorites. Cool conversation; one of those bonuses you don’t expect.

I often write about the last player to leave. Camp breaks, and players want to go home. But there’s always one who stays. The last time I wrote that column, it was Josh Norman.

If you’re a fan, I’d find time to go. Camp is condensed, and you’re closer to everybody and everything. You encounter players, get a feel for who they are. I don’t believe in autographs for adults, but if you like the things, you’ll have a opportunity to get one, unless you push a kid out of the way, in which case you’ll go to prison.

Camp breaks Aug. 14 after a joint practice with the Buffalo Bills, the second such practice…

There are a lot of Panthers I want to see in Spartanburg. But let’s say I could pick only one. Let’s say you could pick only one. Cam Newton probably would be your runaway winner, although Christian McCaffrey would get some votes, and so would rookie first-round pick Brian Burns.

But if I had to pick only one, it would be defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. I have long respected the man’s game, and still struggle to envision him in a uniform other than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’. Seeing him in Carolina’s colors would make the transition official.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Observer columnist.
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